Decision to Log Forest Ignores Public Input and Science, Threatens Trout Streams

ASHEVILLE, N.C.—In a decision announced Friday, the Forest Service committed to charging ahead with irresponsible plans to log in the headwaters of the Nantahala River and Buck Creek in steep, backcountry areas of the Nantahala National Forest. Known as the “Buck project,” the decision would log nearly 800 acres—the biggest logging project in the Nantahala National Forest in a generation—despite overwhelming public opposition. The decision follows formal objections submitted by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of MountainTrue, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club in September 2019.

“This decision ignores public input and support for an alternative proposal that eliminated the riskiest logging and protected clear-running and popular trout streams and old, biologically rich forests,” said Amelia Burnette, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The agency fell short of its obligation to consider harmful impacts of its logging plan and disclose them to the public.”   

The federal agency instead doubled down on its initial plan for hundreds of acres of logging in backcountry areas containing old, biologically rich, and unique ecosystems that are home to rare plants and animals and pristine streams protected by the state for their outstanding value. The agency rejected a scaled-down alternative that avoided the most damaging aspects of the logging project by staying out of all areas being evaluated for wilderness protection, eliminating most road-building in steep slopes, and avoiding areas prioritized for conservation, while still retaining much of the timber harvest.  Of over 670 comments received by the agency, 90 percent favored this less risky alternative or no logging at all, according to documents obtained by SELC.

The Buck project also invites unnecessary conflict during the ongoing forest plan revision for the Nantahala National Forest. The project will be implemented under the new forest plan, which, according to agency policy and public input, should not put protection of special places at odds with timber harvest, which can be used instead as a tool to restore areas that have been degraded in the past.  This project does the opposite.

“At a time when the Forest Service is evaluating the future of one million acres in our forest plan revision, the Buck project missed an important opportunity to develop a project with wide community support,” said Josh Kelly, a field biologist with MountainTrue who conducted extensive fieldwork in the area. “Instead of taking a collaborative approach that prioritizes ecologically appropriate and beneficial work, the federal agency is igniting controversy right in the middle of the plan revision.”

The Buck project will have lasting impacts. For example, the project would develop the backcountry of Chunky Gal Mountain, cutting in roads that will go unmaintained after the logging, threatening pristine streams and creating corridors for invasive plant species to spread.  The logging and roads could disqualify the Chunky Gal area from being included in the contiguous Southern Nantahala Wilderness, a designation that would permanently protect the area and which is supported by a broad cross section of people that use our national forest.

“We oppose logging parts of the forests that are eligible for wilderness protection under the agency’s own regulations,” said Hugh Irwin, conservation planner with The Wilderness Society. “By committing these backcountry wilderness areas to a future timber sale before adequately considering public feedback on how these areas would be managed in a new forest plan, the agency seals their fate, and diminishes the role of the American public in shaping the future of these forests.”

Hundreds of acres of logging will occur in old, biologically rich and unique ecosystems under-represented in Southern Appalachian forests. 

“Although the agency has claimed logging in this project will actually benefit the imperiled golden-winged warbler, if that were true, the Forest Service would have followed expert guidance about how to properly do that,” said Ben Prater, the Southeast Program Director at Defenders of Wildlife. “In truth, this project is likely to do more harm than good for rare wildlife.”

In a pattern that reflects an administration trend of ignoring science and failing to plan for climate change, the agency claims to help solve climate change by cutting old forests, disregarding science that shows older forests and their ecosystems are important to absorbing problematic carbon pollution and tempering the impact of climate change.

“This decision is disappointing in that it leaves lands that we believe better meet the need for future wildlands, vulnerable,” said David Reid, National Forests Issues Chair for the NC Chapter of the Sierra Club.

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For more than 30 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has used the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast. With more than 80 attorneys and nine offices across the region, SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect our natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. www.SouthernEnvironment.org